Connemara moonshiners: The poitin patriots

Published Wednesday, November 11, 2009, 9:55 AM

A different era in a different and much more blandified Ireland, yet a few of the old roads still have to be followed faithfully.

I picked up the phone yesterday and called a certain number in Connemara, like I do every early November, and I put in my order for Christmas. I don't yet know how or where I will collect my order come December, but I know my crystal consignment will be there somewhere, and I don't think it will cost me much more than €60 in my money and whatever that is nowadays in yours.

I must be careful hereabouts because this is an illegal transaction involving illegal acts both on my part and on the part of the seller who, to the best of my knowledge, is also the producer and distributor.

Like the cigarette ship that sailed into a Louth port with nearly 200 million smuggled cigarettes, we too are denying revenue to an impoverished state. We could land up in Mountjoy Jail if either of us are caught.

Therefore I will state here that my consignment of poitin from Connemara is intended solely for external application to the stiffening hind end of our terrier Penny, is for medicinal purposes only, and there is no intent at all at this stage to pour any of the moonshine into a little shot glass during Christmas, surrounded by friends and family, and to say "Slainte" and then empty the glass.

No, my friends, there is no intent there at all.

Now, the multi-million import of smuggled cigarettes to fund gangsters is a totally different matter altogether. My little technical illegality in relation to the bottle or two of poitin is at another end of the scale.

Both the moonshiner and I, many of you would agree, are actually to be praised for keeping a fiery element of our culture alive at no little risk to ourselves. Am I a patriot in this affair? You could argue easily that I am.

If I am captured by the excise men in possession of the moonshine on my way back to Clare the legalities could land me in Mountjoy for weeks if not months! That is the letter of the existing law.

I have to say that I relish the Irish reality that those laws exist on the books, coupled with heavy fines. I have yet to hear of a Connemara moonshiner being incarcerated for his work. It may have happened but I am not aware of it.

Some of them (not many) have been caught red-handed at their remote stills in the mountains, but somehow their subsequent day in court does not end in a Dublin cell. Somewhere there is a kind of Irish solution to a unique Irish situation.

We have become so proper and so tamed and so civilized in this New Ireland that I say without fear or favor that here is one citizen who is delighted you can still place a Christmas order for the real old Mountain Dew.

We have become a race of the kind of colorless, odorless conformists over the last decade. I don't think we were bred that way at all.

We don't smoke in public places anymore, and we are afraid to drive to the pub even if we could afford the price of a few pints. Our politicians can control us nowadays --witness the second Lisbon vote -- with one hand tied behind their backs.

We keep trying to be model Europeans with "green" legislation that makes us fearful of even touching anything which is not organic and biodegradable. If we really were model Europeans in the past we'd never, ever have been the first race to expel the English from (the most) of Ireland; there would still be a Union Jack flying over Dublin Castle.

I dread the day when it will not be possible to place your order in November for a Christmas bottle of Mountain Dew. That will be a bad day.

Somehow, in my biased view, poitin is much more than just an alcoholic drink. In its original form in times of Mother Empire its distillation in the bogs was one of the sparks of rebellion. It even tastes like that for God's sake.

Like ourselves, it is not a spirit to be trifled with. It can be dangerously unpredictable, just like ourselves at times.

Carefully nurtured and carefully appreciated, it can provide the foundation for a magnificent nightcap. Abused or maltreated, it is as lethal as Joe Stalin.

Its fiery bouquet is of the homeland hills, of spring wells and heathers and whins and lonesomeness and deep pools of both mystery and regret. It deserves respect at every level.

I actually don't like the mere taste of poitin at all. It has too sharp an edge for me unless it is of the very best variety that has been run through the worm three times.

But I love to the core the taste of the ritual primitivity of what it represents. I don't know does that make any kind of sense at all to anyone but myself.

Many years ago when working for The Irish Press in Connemara I wrote about the moonshining season which starts about this time of year. I covered police raids on the stills and the endless games of cat and dog between the moonshiners and the Law.

Later I appointed myself as the world's first poitin taster by acquiring samples of some of the Connemara poitins and tasting them. And writing about them.

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